Sankey's Double-header by Frank H. Spearman
A Winter's Tale
The oldest man in the train service didn't pretend to
say how long Sankey had worked for the company.
Pat Francis was a very old conductor; but old man Sankey
was a veteran when Pat Francis began braking. Sankey ran
a passenger train when Jimmie Brady was running—and
Jimmie afterward enlisted and was killed in the Custer fight.
There was an odd tradition about Sankey's name. He was
a tall, swarthy fellow, and carried the blood of a Sioux chief
in his veins. It was in the time of the Black Hills excitement,
when railroad men, struck by the gold fever, were abandoning
their trains even at way-stations and striking across the
divide for Clark's Crossing. Men to run the trains were
hard to get, and Tom Porter, trainmaster, was putting in every
man he could pick up without reference to age or color.
Porter (he died at Julesburg afterward) was a great "jollier,"
and he wasn't afraid of anybody on earth. One day a war
party of Sioux clattered into town and tore around like a
storm. They threatened to scalp everything, even to the
local tickets. They dashed in on Tom Porter, sitting in the
despatcher's office upstairs, while the despatcher was hiding
below, under a loose plank in the baggage-room floor. Tom,
being bald as a sand-hill, considered himself exempt from
scalping parties anyway. He was working a game of solitaire
when they bore down on him, and got them interested in it.
That led to a parley, which ended by Porter's hiring the whole
band to brake on freight trains. Old man Sankey was said
to have been one of that original war party.
Now this is merely a caboose story, told on winter nights
when trainmen get stalled in the snow that drifts down from
the Sioux country. But what follows is better attested.
Sankey, to start with, had a peculiar name—an unpronounceable,
unspellable, unmanageable name. I never heard
it, so I can't give it to you; but it was as hard to catch as an
Indian pony, and that name made more trouble on the payrolls
than all the other names put together. Nobody at headquarters
could handle it; it was never turned in twice alike,
and they were always writing Tom Porter about the thing.
Tom explained several times that it was Sitting Bull's ambassador
who was drawing that money, and that he usually signed
the pay-roll with a tomahawk. But nobody at Omaha ever
knew how to take a joke. The first time Tom went down, he
was called in very solemnly to explain again about the name,
and being in a hurry and very tired of the whole business,
Tom spluttered: "Hang it, don't bother me any more about
that name! If you can't read it make it Sankey, and be done
They took Tom at his word. They actually did make it
Sankey; and that's how our oldest conductor came to bear
the name of the famous singer. And more I may tell you:
good name as it was—and is—the Sioux never disgraced it.
I suppose every old traveler on the system knew Sankey.
He was not only always ready to answer questions; but, what
is more, ready to answer the same question twice. It is that
which makes conductors gray-headed and spoils their chances
for heaven—answering the same questions over and over
again. Children were apt to be startled a bit at first sight
of Sankey, he was so dark. But Sankey had a very quiet
smile that always made them friends after the first trip
through the sleepers, and they sometimes ran about asking
for him after he had left the train. Of late years—and this
hurts a bit—these very same children, grown ever so much
bigger, and riding again to or from California or Japan or
Australia, will ask, when they reach the West End, about the
Indian conductor. But the conductors who now run the overland
trains pause at the question, checking over the date
limits on the margins of the coupon tickets, and handing
the envelopes back, look at the children, and say quietly:
"He isn't running any more."
If you have ever gone over our line to the mountains or to
the coast, you may remember at McCloud, where they change
engines and set the diner in or out, the pretty little green park
to the east of the depot, with a row of catalpa trees along the
platform line. It looks like a glass of spring water. If it
happened to be Sankey's run and a regular West End day,
sunny and delightful, you would be sure to see standing under
the catalpas a shy, dark-skinned girl of fourteen or fifteen
years, silently watching the preparations for the departure of
the Overland. And after the new engine had been backed
champing down, and harnessed to its long string of vestibuled
sleepers; after the air-hose had been connected and examined;
after the engineer had swung out of his cab, filled his cups, and
swung in again; after the fireman and his helper had disposed
of their slice-bar and shovel and given the tender a final
sprinkle, and after the conductor had walked leisurely
forward, compared time with the engineer, and cried,
"All Abo-o-o-ard!" then, as your coach moved slowly ahead,
you might notice, under the receding catalpas, the little girl
waving a parasol or a handkerchief at the outgoing train.
That is, at Conductor Sankey; for she was his daughter,
Neeta Sankey. Her mother was Spanish, and died when
Neeta was a wee bit. Neeta and the Limited were Sankey's
When Georgie Sinclair began pulling the Limited, running
west opposite Foley, he struck up a great friendship with
Sankey. Sankey, though he was hard to start, was full of
early-day stories. Georgie, it seemed, had the faculty of
getting him to talk; perhaps because when he was pulling
Sankey's train he made extraordinary efforts to keep on time;
time was a hobby with Sankey. Foley said he was so careful
of it that he let his watch stop when he was off duty just to
save time. Sankey loved to breast the winds and the floods and
the snows, and if he could get home pretty near on schedule,
with everybody else late, he was happy; and in respect of that,
as Sankey used to say, Georgie Sinclair could come nearer
gratifying Sankey's ambition than any engine-runner we had.
Even the firemen used to observe that the young engineer,
always neat, looked still neater on the days when he took out
By and by there was an introduction under the catalpas.
After that it was noticed that Georgie began wearing gloves
on the engine—not kid gloves, but yellow dogskin; and
black silk shirts—he bought them in Denver. Then—such
an odd way engineers have of paying compliments—when
Georgie pulled into town on Number Two, if it was Sankey's
train, the big sky-scraper would give a short, hoarse scream,
a most peculiar note, just as it drew past Sankey's house,
which stood on the brow of the hill west of the yards. Thus
Neeta would know that Number Two and her father, and
naturally Mr. Sinclair, were in again, and all safe and sound.
When the railway trainmen held their division fair at
McCloud there was a lantern to be voted to the most popular
conductor—a gold-plated lantern with a green curtain in
the globe. Cal Stewart and Ben Doton, who were very swell
conductors and great rivals, were the favorites, and had the
town divided over their chances for winning it. But at the
last moment Georgie Sinclair stepped up to the booth and cast
a storm of votes for old man Sankey. Doton's friends and
Stewart's laughed at first; but Sankey's votes kept pouring
in amazingly. The two favorites got frightened; they pooled
their issues by throwing Stewart's vote to Doton. But it
wouldn't do. Georgie Sinclair, with a crowd of engineers—Cameron,
Kennedy, Foley, Bat Mullen, and Burns—came
back at them with such a swing that in the final five
minutes they fairly swamped Doton. Sankey took the lantern
by a thousand votes. But I understood it cost Georgie and
his friends a pot of money.
Sankey said all the time that he didn't want the lantern,
but just the same he always carried that particular lantern,
with his full name, Sylvester Sankey, ground into the glass
just below the green mantle. Pretty soon, Neeta being then
eighteen, it was rumored that Sinclair was engaged to Miss
Sankey, and was going to marry her. And marry her he did;
though that was not until after the wreck in the Blackwood
gorge after the Big Snow.
It goes by just that name on the West End yet; for never
were such a winter and such a snow known on the plains and
in the mountains. One train on the northern division was
stalled six weeks that winter, and one whole coach was chopped
up for kindling wood. The great and desperate effort of
the company was to hold open the main line, the artery which
connected the two coasts. It was a hard winter on trainmen.
Week after week the snow kept falling and blowing. The
trick was not to clear the line; it was to keep it clear. Every
day we sent out trains with the fear that we should not see
them again for a week. Freight we didn't pretend to move;
local passenger business had to be abandoned. Coal, to keep
our engines and our towns supplied, we had to carry; and
after that all the brains and muscle and motive power were
centered on keeping One and Two, our through passenger
Our trainmen worked like Americans; there were no
cowards on our rolls. But after too long a strain men become
exhausted, benumbed, indifferent; reckless, even. The nerves
give out, and will-power seems to halt on indecision; but
decision is the life of the fast train. None of our conductors
stood the hopeless fight like Sankey. He was patient, taciturn,
untiring; and in a conflict with the elements, ferocious. All
the fighting blood of his ancestors seemed to course again in
that struggle with the winter king. I can see him yet, on bitter
days, standing alongside the track in a heavy pea-jacket and
Napoleon boots, a sealskin cap drawn snugly over his straight
black hair, watching, ordering, signaling, while Number One,
with its frost-bitten sleepers behind a rotary, tried to buck
through ten and twenty-foot cuts which lay bank-full of snow
west of McCloud.
Not until April did it begin to look as if we should win out.
A dozen times the line was all but choked on us. And then,
when snow-plows were disabled and train crews desperate,
there came a storm that discounted the worst blizzard of the
winter. As the reports rolled in on the morning of the 5th,
growing worse as they grew thicker, Neighbor, dragged out,
played out, mentally and physically, threw up his hands.
It snowed all day the 6th, and on Saturday morning the
section men reported thirty feet in the Blackwood cañon.
It was six o'clock when we got the word, and daylight before
we got the rotary against it. They bucked away till noon
without much headway, and came in with their gear smashed
and a driving-rod fractured. It looked as if we were at last
beaten. Number One pulled into McCloud that day eighteen
hours late; it was Sankey's and Sinclair's run west.
There was a long council in the round-house. The rotary
was knocked out; coal was running low in the chutes. If
the line wasn't kept open for the coal from the mountains, it
was plain we should be tied until we could ship it from Iowa
or Missouri. West of Medicine Pole there was another big
rotary working east, with plenty of coal behind her; but she
was reported stuck fast in the Cheyenne Hills. Foley made
suggestions, and Dad Sinclair made suggestions. Everybody
had a suggestion left. The trouble was, Neighbor said, they
didn't amount to anything, or were impossible. "It's a
dead block, boys," announced Neighbor sullenly after everybody
had done. "We are beaten unless we can get Number
One through to-day. Look there: by the holy poker, it's
The air was dark in a minute with whirling clouds. Men
turned to the windows and quit talking. Every fellow felt
the same—hopeless; at least, all but one. Sankey, sitting
back of the stove, was making tracings with a piece of chalk.
"You might as well unload your passengers, Sankey," said
Neighbor. "You'll never get 'em through this winter."
And it was then that Sankey proposed his double-header.
He devised a snow-plow which combined in one monster
ram about all the good material we had left, and submitted
the scheme to Neighbor. Neighbor studied it, and hacked
at it all he could, and brought it over to the office. It was
like staking everything on the last cast of the dice, but we
were in the state of mind which precedes a desperate venture.
It was talked over an hour, and orders were finally given by
the superintendent to rig up the double-header and get against
the snow with it.
All that day and most of the night Neighbor worked twenty
men on Sankey's device. By Sunday morning it was in such
shape that we began to take heart. "If she don't get through,
she'll sure get back again, and that's what most of 'em don't
do," growled Neighbor, as he and Sankey showed the new ram
to the engineers.
They had taken the 566, George Sinclair's engine, for one
head, and Burns's, the 497, for the other. Behind these
were Kennedy, with the 314, and Cameron, with the 296.
The engines were set in pairs, headed each way, and buckled
up like pack mules. Over the pilots and stacks of the head
engines rose the tremendous plows, which were to tackle the
worst drifts ever recorded, before or since, on the West End.
The ram was designed to work both ways. Under the coal,
each tender was loaded with pig-iron.
The beleaguered passengers on Number One, side-tracked
in the yards, eagerly watched the preparations Sankey was
making to clear the line. Every amateur on the train had his
camera out taking pictures of the ram. The town, gathered
in a single great mob, looked silently on, and listened to the
frosty notes of the sky-scrapers as they went through their
preliminary manœuvers. Just as the final word was given
by Sankey, conductor in charge, the sun burst through the
fleecy clouds, and a wild cheer followed the ram out of the
western yard; it was looked on as a sign of good luck to see
the sun again.
Little Neeta, up on the hill, must have seen them as they
pulled out. Surely she heard the choppy ice-bitten screech
of the 566; for that was never forgotten, whether the service
was special or regular. Besides, the head cab of the ram
carried this time not only Georgie Sinclair, but her father as
well. Sankey could handle a slice-bar as well as a punch, and
rode on the head engine, where, if anywhere, the big chances
would come. What Sankey was not capable of in the train-service
we never knew, because he rose superior to every
emergency that ever confronted him.
Bucking snow is principally brute force; there is very little
coaxing. West of the bluffs there was a volley of sharp tooting,
like code signals between a fleet of cruisers, and in just a
minute the four ponderous engines, two of them in the back
motion, fires white and throats bursting, steamed wildly into
the cañon. Six hundred feet from the first cut, Sinclair's
whistle signaled again. Burns and Cameron and Kennedy
answered; and then, literally turning the monster ram loose
against the dazzling mountain, the crews settled themselves
for the shock.
At such a moment there is nothing to be done. If anything
goes wrong, eternity is too close to consider. There came a
muffled drumming on the steam-chests; a stagger and a
terrific impact; and then the recoil, like the stroke of a trip-hammer.
The snow shot into the air fifty feet, and the wind
carried a cloud of fleecy confusion over the ram and out of
the cut. The cabs were buried in white, and the great steel
frames of the engines sprung like knitting-needles under the
frightful force of the blow. Pausing for hardly a breath,
they began the signaling again; then backed up and up and
up the line; and again the massive machines were hurled
screaming into the cut. "We're getting there, Georgie,"
cried Sankey when the rolling and lurching had stopped.
No one else could tell a thing about it, for it was snow and
snow and snow; above and behind and ahead and beneath.
Sinclair coughed the flakes out of his eyes and nose and mouth
like a baffled collie. He looked doubtful of the claim until
the mist had blown clear and the quivering monsters were
again recalled for a dash. Then it was plain that Sankey's
instinct was right; they were gaining.
Again they went in, lifting a very avalanche over the stacks,
packing the banks of the cut with walls hard as ice. Again,
as the drivers stuck, they raced in a frenzy, and into the shriek
of the wind went the unearthly scrape of the overloaded
safeties. Slowly and sullenly the machines were backed again.
"She's doing the work, Georgie," cried Sankey. "For
that kind of a cut she's as good as a rotary. Look everything
over now while I go back and see how the boys are standing
it. Then we'll give her one more, and give it the hardest
And they did give her one more; and another. Men at
Santiago put up no stouter fight than these men made that
Sunday morning in the cañon of the Blackwood. Once they
went in, and twice. And the second time the bumping
drummed more deeply; the drivers held, pushed, panted, and
gained against the white wall; heaved and stumbled ahead;
and with a yell from Sinclair and Sankey and the fireman, the
double-header shot her nose into the clear over the Blackwood
gorge. As engine after engine flew past the divided
walls each cab took up the cry; it was the wildest crowd that
ever danced to victory. Through they went and half-way
across the bridge before they could check their monster
catapult. Then, at a half full, they shot it back again at the
cut, for it worked as well one way as the other.
"The thing is done," declared Sankey, when they got into
position up the line for a final shoot to clean out the eastern
cut and get head for a dash across the bridge and into the west
end of the cañon, where there lay another mountain of snow
to split. "Look the machines over pretty close, boys," said
he to the engineers. "If nothing's sprung, we'll take a full
head across the gorge—the bridge will carry anything—and
buck the west cut. Then after we get Number One
through this afternoon, Neighbor can put his baby cabs in here
and keep 'em chasing all night. But it's done snowing,"
he added, looking at the leaden sky.
He had the plans all figured out for the master mechanic,
the shrewd, kindly old man. I think, myself, there's no man
on earth like a good Indian; and, for that matter, none like
a bad one. Sankey knew by a military instinct just what
had to be done and how to do it. If he had lived, he was to
have been assistant superintendent. That was the word
that leaked from headquarters afterward. And with a volley
of jokes between the cabs and a laughing and yelling between
toots, down went Sankey's double-header again into the
At the same moment, by an awful misunderstanding of
orders, down came the big rotary from the west end with a
dozen cars of coal behind. Mile after mile it had wormed
east toward Sankey's ram, and it now burrowed through the
western cut of the Blackwood, crashed through the drift Sankey
was aiming for, and whirled out into the open, dead against
him, at forty miles an hour. Each train, in order to make
the grade and the blockade against it, was straining the
Through the swirling snow that half hid the bridge and
interposed between the rushing plows Sinclair saw them
coming. He yelled. Sankey saw them a fraction of a second
later, and while Sinclair struggled with the throttle and the
air, Sankey gave the alarm through the whistle to the poor
fellows in the blind pockets behind. But the track was at the
worst. Where there was no snow there were "whiskers";
oil itself couldn't have been worse to stop on. It was the old
and deadly peril of fighting blockades from both ends on a
single track. The great rams of steel and fire had done their
work, and with their common enemy overcome, they dashed
at each other like madmen across the Blackwood gorge.
The fireman at the first cry shot out the side. Sankey
yelled at Sinclair to jump. But Georgie shook his head: he
never would jump. Without hesitating, Sankey picked him
from the levers in his arms, planted a sure foot, and hurled him
like a coal shovel through the gangway far out into the gorge.
The other cabs were already empty. But the instant's delay
in front cost Sankey his life. Before he himself could jump
the rotary crashed into the 566. They reared like mountain
lions, pitched sideways and fell headlong into the creek, fifty
feet. Sankey went under them. He could have saved himself;
he chose to save George. There wasn't time to do
both; he had to choose, and to choose instantly. Did he,
maybe, think in that flash of Neeta and of whom she needed
most—of a young and a stalwart protector rather than an
old and failing one? I do not know; I know only what he
did. Every one who jumped got clear. Sinclair lit in ten
feet of snow, and they pulled him out with a rope: he wasn't
scratched. Even the bridge was not badly strained. Number
One pulled over it next day.
Sankey was right; there was no more snow; not even
enough to cover the dead engines that lay on the rocks. But
the line was open: the fight was won.
There never was a funeral in McCloud like Sankey's.
George Sinclair and Neeta followed first, and of the mourners
there were as many as there were spectators. Every engine on
the division carried black for thirty days.
Sankey's contrivance for fighting snow has never yet been
beaten on the high line. It is perilous to go against a drift
behind it: something has to give. But it gets there, as Sankey
got there—always; and in time of blockade and desperation
on the West End they still send out Sankey's double-header;
though Sankey, as the conductors tell the children, traveling
east or traveling west—Sankey isn't running any more.